Happy Monday, everyone. The Tide enjoyed a nice, methodical dispatching of Auburn on Saturday to head into the SEC Championship Game as the only unbeaten team in the Power 5 conferences. We mentioned last week that the Tide was chasing history in a couple of different ways, and another has now emerged:
The dominance actually looks a lot like what that USC team accomplished. The 2004 Trojans won by an average of 25 points, but even they had four one-possession wins. Alabama has just one this season, the 48-43 win over Ole Miss. In total, there have only been nine teams in history that have started and finished the year No. 1:
As you may recall, that 2004 USC team was stripped of its national title and forced to vacate its final two wins. That team and the 1999 Florida State team that defeated Michael Vick's Virginia Tech squad in New Orleans stand as the only two teams in history to maintain the #1 ranking from wire to wire. Of course, the Tide also has the opportunity to become the first 15-win team in Division 1/FBS history and the first team to win five national titles in eight years while wearing facemasks.
As always, nothing is a foregone conclusion and there are several worthy adversaries ahead who will undoubtedly grow tired of hearing about Alabama's greatness leading up to the playoff games.
On to the Iron Bowl recap:
The fact is, the rivalry now is roughly where it was in the 1970s when Paul "Bear" Bryant was coaching. Alabama has won seven of the last nine meetings and in the two games Alabama didn't win in that stretch, Auburn had (a.) a once-in-a-generation player, Cam Newton and (b.) a once-in-a-generation play, the Kick Six. In six of the seven wins, when lightning didn't strike, Alabama has won by double digits, the margins ranging from 11 points to 49. There's a whole year to speculate whether next season will be different, whether Auburn will narrow the talent gap enough to make this a battle of equals again. The other option, also possible, is the gap will grow even wider as Alabama brings in another Top 5 class.
Twenty-six of the offense's total rushes and 66 percent of its rushing yardage came in the final two quarters after the coaching staff sort of simplified the game plan at halftime. In the second half, the offense became determined to run the ball. It worked, and it put the shaky Jalen Hurts from the first half at ease (he threw two interceptions in the first half and put the ball on the ground a couple of more times). Hurts threw the ball only 10 times in the second half.
Meanwhile the running game and the offensive line went to work averaging 5.2 yards per carry, up from 3.8 in the first half.
What changed between the first 30 minutes and the last 30?
"To be honest we ran the ball," center Bradley Bozeman said.
This week, with the college-football postseason now here, the coach and player will have a lot to discuss. If Saban learned anything about his team on Saturday during Alabama's 30-12 victory against overmatched Auburn, it was that his freshman quarterback remains a concern. Hurts is an amazing talent, and his potential as a college quarterback knows no limits, but right now he might be the one thing that could prevent the Crimson Tide from winning the national championship. That's not an indictment on Hurts — and, in the end, his weaknesses as a passer might not matter — but the true freshman quarterback is, at times, still playing like a true freshman quarterback. A week away from the SEC championship game, it's fair to call Hurts a liability against elite defenses.
The second half dominance was actually pretty similar to the first half dominance, scoreboard aside. Alabama simply didn't turn the ball over in the second half. The Tide defense showed out again, overwhelming the Auburn offense to the tune of 2.5 yards per rush and 16.7% on third down. In all, Auburn held the football for less than 20 minutes.
Hurts did some nice things in this one, a first half bullet to ArDarius Stewart on a deep corner route to set up the Tide's first touchdown. Of course, there also were some ball security issues that must be addressed. Around this time least season, Kiffin seemed to figure out exactly what the offense could do most effectively and stuck with it. The same thing may be happening this year.
Bozeman's comment is interesting. There were plenty of rushing attempts in the first half as well, but this is what he means when he says they "ran the ball:"
This is a very basic, old-school double-wing formation, folks. Bo Scarbrough's biggest runs came out of this set, running outside zone to the left behind Cam Robinson and Miller Forristall. Hurts also managed to beat a contain man who had stayed home as assigned to complete a nice boot pass to Ridley out of this very set. In all, the Tide spent almost the entire second half either under center or in the pistol, two formations that tend toward power running and explosive passing vs. the spread short passing concepts.
It will be interesting to see if this becomes more of a staple during the championship run.
The opening line on the SEC Championship Game is even bigger than last year:
Alabama is a 21.5-point favorite over Florida for the SEC Championship Game, per @TwitVI— Marq Burnett (@Marq_Burnett) November 27, 2016
It will be incumbent on the staff to keep the guys focused when the game seems to be a foregone conclusion.
TOUGH DEFENSES: The two best defenses in the league will take on offenses that have been less consistent. The Tide leads the nation in run defense, scoring defense and total defense The Gators rank third in pass efficiency defense and fifth in both points and yards allowed. The Tide hasn't allowed a touchdown in the last 267 minutes, 54 seconds of game time, dating back to the third quarter of the Texas A&M game on Oct. 22.
OFFENSIVE ISSUES: Alabama's offense has been prone to stopping itself at times, including two Jalen Hurts interceptions in the first half against Auburn. The Tide also fumbled four times in the half but recovered all of them. Those kinds of things could come back to haunt them in their bid for titles. Florida has perhaps more serious offensive concerns after gaining just 207 yards against FSU, including 58 on the ground.
-- This Alabama defense has more speed than teams when he was there.
-- Alabama D has evolved over time. Coverages are similar in ways.
-- Alabama didn't have to think about starting a freshman at QB when he was in Tuscaloosa. Playing a running QB "is like playing 12 guys on the field."
-- McElwain noticed nothing seems to bother Jalen Hurts when watching him on film. Freshman never panics.
There's more. Given the perceived gap between the top-ranked Tide and the field, even a SEC title game loss wouldn't likely keep Alabama from the four-team playoff field. That's where things get dicey for Nick Saban and his quest for the mental edge. He fights to keep that comfort from reaching the locker room. A question about that hypothetical safety net was answered with surprising calm Saturday evening. "Well I hate it when you say that," Saban said without raising his voice. "I hate it when they put that on TV, radio, internet, any kind of communication. Look, I'm really proud of our team. But really, the legacy of this team still lies ahead in terms of what they can accomplish and what they can accomplish and what they can do."
"The noise" is going to be the theme of the week. If this year's Florida State squad can roll up 6.2 yards per carry en route to blowing out this Florida team, they shouldn't be able to stay on the field with Alabama. Stranger things have happened, though, and usually to teams who drop the football as the Tide did on Saturday.
Lastly, we close with some big recruiting news:
The 6-foot-4, 234-pound Allen is a four-star outside linebacker ranked No. 118 nationally per the 247Sports composite and as the nation's No. 7 outside linebacker. Allen attends Southern University Lab School in Baton Rouge, and is friends with Baton Rouge native and 5-star Alabama linebacker commit Dylan Moses, who is finishing his high school career at IMG Academy in Florida. Alabama also has commitments at linebacker from four-star recruits Markail Benton of Central-Phenix City and VanDarius Cowan of Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.
This commitment is considered something of a coup, as most insiders had Allen staying home to play at LSU. Allen is a speed rusher who the staff has compared to fellow Louisianan Tim Williams. Tosh Lupoi was the lead recruiter...again. UA needs to do whatever it takes to keep that man in Crimson for a long time.
That's about it for today. Have a great week.